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A popular Korean saying about Hangul and its characters says: “a wise man can acquaint himself with them [the characters] before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days“. This suggests that the Korean alphabet is actually easier than you’d think. Although the Korean language is one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers, its alphabet has been praised by linguists for its featural* design and described as ”brilliant“ and ”a perfect phonetic system devised to withstand the tests of time and use“.
Whether you want to learn Korean because you’re planning to travel or move to South Korea, you are a BTS fan (aka the Bangtan Boys, a South Korean boy band), or simply passionate about Korean culture; Hangul is a perfect starting point. Not only will it give you the confidence to carry on learning, but it will also help you read most written texts in Korean.
Additionally, if you start learning Korean using Korean Romanization (Latin script representation of the Korean alphabet), you’ll probably become addicted to it and that won’t do you any good. Once you get used to Romanization, it’s really tough to give it up and learn to write Korean using Hangul.
*a featural writing system is one in which the shapes of the characters mimic their articulator’s shape and phonetic features when pronouncing them.
A brief history of Hangul: how was the Korean alphabet created?
Usually, we don’t discuss history when it comes to writing systems, but the history of Hangul is absolutely fascinating and you’ll surely want to find out more.
The Korean alphabet, also known as Hangul or Hangeul in South Korea and Chosŏn’gŭl in North Korea, was invented in 1443 by King Sejong the Great, the fourth king in the Joseon dynasty of Korea.
For hundreds of years, before Hangul was created, Koreans wrote using Classical Chinese characters (which they called Hanja) alongside other native phonetic writing systems. However, many lower-class people didn’t know how to read or write because of the fundamental differences between Korean and Chinese and, of course, because of the large number of Chinese characters. After all, even today, many people find Chinese and Japanese very difficult to learn because of their complex writing systems.
Thus, to help more common people become literate, King Sejong the Great, personally created and promulgated a new alphabet: the Korean alphabet. The new writing system was designed so that people with little to no education could easily learn how to read and write.
A document published in 1446 and discovered in 1940 explains that the design of the Korean consonants mimics their articulator’s shape and phonetic features when pronouncing them and the vowels are based on the principles of vowel harmony and yin and yang.
Opposition and revival
But that’s not how the story ends. The new alphabet faced opposition by the literary elite, who believed Hanja was the only legitimate writing system and saw the circulation of the Korean alphabet as a threat to their status. Nonetheless, the Korean alphabet entered popular culture and was especially used by women and popular fiction writers.
In 1504, King Yeonsangun banned the study and publication of the Korean alphabet after a document criticizing him was published.
However, the late 16th and 17th centuries saw a revival of the Korean alphabet when poetry and novels written in the Korean alphabet flourished.
Then, thanks to Korean nationalism and Western missionaries’ promotion of the Korean alphabet, Hangul (a term coined by linguist Ju Si-gyeong in 1912) was adopted in official documents for the first time in 1894.
The use of Hangul met even more opposition and reforms under Japanese rule, but had eventually become the exclusive writing system in both North and South Korea after 1950.
The Korean Alphabet – an overview
The Korean alphabet or Hangul consists of 24 basic letters: 14 consonants (ㄱ ㄴ ㄷ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅅ ㅇ ㅈ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ) and 10 vowels (ㅏ ㅑ ㅓ ㅕ ㅗ ㅛ ㅜ ㅠ ㅡ ㅣ). Additionally, as you’ll dive into it, you’ll discover that there are in fact 19 complex letters with 5 tense consonants (ㄲ ㄸ ㅃ ㅉ ㅆ) and 11 complex vowels (ㅢ ㅚ ㅐ ㅟ ㅔ ㅒ ㅖ ㅘ ㅝ ㅙ ㅞ) formed by combining the basic letters.
The name “Hangeul” combines the Korean word han (한) – meaning “great” – and geul (글) – meaning “script”. However, the word han is also used to refer to Korea in general, so the name can also translate to “Korean script”.
Unlike Chinese or Japanese which have hundreds or even thousands of characters – each with 10, 15, or even more strokes – the most complex Korean letter (or character) has only five strokes. Besides, Hangul is a very scientific alphabet. Once you manage to understand the logic behind it, the learning journey becomes easier.
Korean letters are called jamo (자모) and they are written in syllabic blocks arranged in two dimensions. One such block always has exactly one syllable. For example, to write “honeybee” in Korean (kkulbeol), you’ll write 꿀벌, not ㄲㅜㄹㅂㅓㄹ. Today, Korean texts are typically written from left to right, with spaces between words and Western-style punctuation.
As mentioned earlier, Hangul is a featural writing system. This means that the letters mimic the shape the mouth made when the corresponding sound is created. Absolutely fascinating! Let’s go into a little more detail and see how to pronounce the letters of the Korean alphabet.
Korean consonants pronunciation
Languages from different language groups rarely resemble each other. Thus, it’s very difficult to explain the sounds of a language using the letters of another. In our context, this means that there is no perfect way to represent Korean characters using Latin/English letters or sounds. The English letters we will use to explain how to pronounce the letters of the Korean alphabet are the closest representation possible.
To better understand how to pronounce Hangul, it’s best to go to language learning apps such as Mondly, where crystal-clear audios recorded by fluent voice actors will help you understand the pronunciation particularities of the Korean language.
For example, the sounds of the 14 consonants (or the extended list of 19) of the Korean language change depending on whether they appear at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a syllable. Here’s a Korean alphabet consonants basic chart for beginners to help you get started:
As you can see, the complex or double consonants are in a different color on the last row of the chart. Additionally, under each consonant, you’ll find its corresponding sound at the beginning and at the end of the syllable. Some of them have identical sounds regardless of their place in the syllable. Furthermore, some of them are silent and some of them are never used syllable-finally (like ㄸ, ㅃ, and ㅉ).
Take “ㅇ” for example, which is silent when it is at the beginning of the syllable and it is used as a placeholder when the syllable starts with a vowel.
Let’s see some other Korean consonants whose sounds transform due to location changes in a word.
- ㅈ: 죽 [chuk] – “porridge” and 콩죽 [k’ong-juk] – “bean porridge”;
- ㅂ: 밥 [pap] – “rice” and 보리밥 [poribap] – “barley mixed with rice”
- ㄱ: 공 [kong] – “ball” and 새 공 [saegong] – “new ball”
It may seem a bit overwhelming now, but with some study, you’ll eventually master all these rules. The secret is to see them all in action in an actual context. Just make sure you start practicing Korean with Mondly and you won’t be sorry. It takes just 10 minutes a day to speak your first words in Korean.
Korean vowels pronunciation
The Korean vowels are generally separated into two categories: monophthongs and diphthongs. While monophthongs are produced with a single articular movement, diphthongs feature an articulatory change and typically consist of two elements: a glide (or a semivowel) and a monophthong.
The best part about Korean vowels is that they are easier to learn because they don’t change depending on their position in the syllable. So here’s how to pronounce the Korean vowels:
The ones that are represented with a different color on the last two rows are the 11 complex vowels that combine basic letters.
Korean letters name and design
The alphabetic order of the Korean alphabet is called ganada (가나다 순) and it does not mix consonants and vowels. Rather, first are consonants and then come vowels.
Now, when you’re learning Korean for beginners, it is sometimes useful to know the names of the Korean letters. If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, you could spell it using these names. However, they should only be used as a guide in the beginning. Don’t rely on this kind of trick for a long period of time, or you’ll risk never mastering the art of the Hangul.
|Korean consonant||Name of the consonant||Romanized spelling|
As you can see, the table also includes the complex consonants. Let’s move on to vowels and see what their names are!
|Vowel/Name of the vowel||Romanized spelling|
Because the vowels’ names are actually the sounds they make, this bit will be easier to remember. Good luck!
Korean letter design and its influence on pronunciation
For an untrained eye, the Korean letters might seem meaningless, but there’s a much more complex story behind it. Scripts can transcribe languages at the level of morphemes (logographic scripts like Hanja), syllables (syllabaries like Japanese kana), segments (alphabetic scripts like the Latin script we use in English), or, sometimes, distinctive features. Well, imagine that the Korean alphabet incorporates aspects of the latter three.
Hangul groups sounds into syllables, uses distinct symbols for segments and sometimes uses distinct strokes to indicate distinctive features like the place of articulation (labial, coronal, velar, glottal), the manner of articulation (plosive, nasal, sibilant, aspiration) and so on.
The consonants fall into five homorganic groups – each with its own basic shape. We must not forget that the Korean consonants mimic the shape of the mouth when the corresponding sound is created. Let’s explore the basic shape of each group:
- velar consonants (ㄱ g [k], ㅋ ḳ [kʰ]): ㄱ is a side view of the back of the tongue raised toward the velum; ㅋ is derived from ㄱ with an extra stroke for the burst of aspiration.
- sibilant consonants (ㅅ s [s], ㅈ j [tɕ], ㅊ ch [tɕʰ]): ㅅ represents a side view of the teeth and the horizontal line at the top of ㅈ represents the firm contact with the roof of your mouth; the horizontal stroke topping ㅊ represents an additional burst of aspiration.
- coronal consonants (ㄴ n [n], ㄷ d [t], ㅌ ṭ [tʰ], ㄹ r [ɾ, l]): ㄴ is a side view of the tip of the tongue raised toward the gum ridge; the horizontal line at the top of ㄷ represents steady contact with the roof of the mouth; the middle stroke on ㅌ represents a burst of aspiration and the top of ㄹ represents a flap of the tongue.
- bilabial consonants (ㅁ m [m], ㅂ b [p], ㅍ p̣ [pʰ]) – ㅁ represents the shape of the lips brought together; the top of ㅂ represents the release burst of the b, the top horizontal stroke of ㅍ is for the burst of aspiration.
- dorsal consonants (ㅇ ‘/ng [ʔ, ŋ], ㅎ h [h]) – ㅇ is an outline of the throat and ㅎ is pronounced in the throat with a close represented by the top horizontal line. The extra vertical stroke represents a burst of aspiration.
Moving to vowels, their design is based on three elements:
- a horizontal line representing Earth, the essence of yin ㅡ;
- a point for the Sun, the essence of yang ㆍ(in modern Hangeul the heavenly dot has mutated into a short line);
- a vertical line for the human, the mediator between Heaven and Earth ㅣ.
Korean letter placement within block shapes
It’s been said that there are around 11,000 block shapes possible in the Korean alphabet. So, how do you place a letter within a block? Do you have to remember them all by heart?
Don’t worry. No. Once you understand the logic behind letter placement within a block, writing in Korean will become a piece of cake for you. Here are some tips:
- if the vowel consists of a long vertical line likeㅏ, ㅑ, ㅓ, ㅕ, or ㅣ, the consonant accompanying it will take the first (or the left) half of the block and the vowel will be written in the second half: ㅂ + ㅣ = 비 (bi) or ㅇ + ㅏ = 아 (a);
- if the vowel consists of a long horizontal line like ㅗ, ㅛ, ㅜ, ㅠ, or ㅡ, the consonant accompanying it will be written on the upper half of the block and the vowel in the lower half: ㅋ + ㅠ = 큐 (kyu) or ㅇ + ㅗ = 오 (o);
- if you have a consonant and a vowel and then another final consonant attached at the end, the second consonant letter will be written at the very bottom of the block shape and will be called 받침 batchim (“supporting floor”): 부 + ㄹ = 불 (bul) or 아 + ㄴ = 안 (an);
- if the vowel combines orientations (has both a long vertical line and a long horizontal line like ㅢ), then it will wrap around the initial character from the bottom to the right:ㅇ+ ㅢ = 의 (ui).
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